Cats in Fables, Fairytales and Festivals
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In 2003 I travelled to Ypres (in Flemish, Ieper) in the West Flanders province of Belgium, centre of some of the fiercest and most prolonged fighting in World War I, and a place with many museums and memorials to that tragic era. The town is also home to the Menin Gate (below), where the Last Post is still sounded every evening in memory of all those who died. However, my interest was a happier one: the Cat Festival held every third year on the second Sunday in May, and for the 40th time in 2003. In its present-day form it was first held in 1955.
There is a 1959 postage stamp from Belgium (above), one of a set of stamps showing various carnivals, that depicts a jester apparently juggling little cats. The story behind this is that in earlier times Ypres was an important centre for the wool trade, the wool being collected up in the town's huge Cloth Hall (above) before sale. All that wool attracted hungry rodents, and so cats were used to control their numbers. However, when the wool had been sold later in the year, the cats were no longer needed, and so they were thrown off the tower a job that fell to the town jester.
This barbaric practice ceased in 1817, and in more modern times has been replaced by a festival celebrating the history and tradition of the cat. The jester (below) is still present at the celebration.
On the Saturday afternoon of the festival weekend a treasure hunt was held for local children, but the event proper opened on the Saturday evening with 'witches' (above) and 'cats' together with a few of the carnival floats and bands processing through the town, followed later by a fireworks display on the town ramparts. Some of the floats were very large and elaborate and pulled by Belgian heavy horses; guiding them through the narrow streets without damaging the parked cars presented quite a challenge!
The main event took place on the Sunday, consisting of a huge and colourful procession that took two hours to pass fortunately it just finished before the rain started! Some 2400 marchers take part in this parade. It began with floats from some of the sponsors and of course a brass band. In fact there were a number of bands, one entirely mounted on heavy horses. The main body of the procession was split into sections, each one being introduced by children carrying placards announcing the theme, and balloons with cat faces.
Different themes included Cat Worship in History (with The Egyptian Cat), The Cat in Language and Legend, The Cat around the World, The Ypres Cat and The Condemnation of Cats and Witches. These tableaux were interspersed with flag throwers; stilt walkers; and generally 'all the fun of the fair'. The large number of children and young people who took part in the whole thing struck me particularly. And, of course, everyone was dressed up and made up with cat features, and in many cases cat costumes.
Some of the ingenious and imaginative participants are shown above, including a 'cat bicycle'; a pair of draught cats; some evil-looking cats from a float bearing a large cauldron engulfed in 'flames'; some characters mounted on beautiful Haflinger horses (I think) and bearing cat banners; and the unmistakable 'cat that everyone loves to hate' Garfield.
Not shown are numerous other floats and participants, such as 'gravediggers' accompanying a deceased cat 'king'; Chinese lion dancers (absolutely breathtaking); characters from the musical Cats; a half-open 'sardine can' float; and many others.
Towards the end of the cortège was the personification of the toy cats, the huge figure of Cieper, 'King of the Cats' (left). I gather he is a permanent part of the proceedings, and very impressive he is. Perhaps even more impressive is his wife Minneke Poes; her costume is made from poppies at the top, and her hat is composed of little cat figures (right). She and Cieper were 'married' in 1971 and have a 'baby' Pieperke, 'born' in 1983 and making his first appearance the following year. I did not notice Pieperke on this occasion.
Not too long after the end of the procession (by which time it was raining quite hard), the jester appeared on a little platform high above the crowd on the Cloth Hall tower (left), and toy cats (right) were tossed down to the crowd. The number of hefty people scrambling to pick these up made it much easier to buy one at the tourist office, which is what I did. To round off the event, some 'witches' were burned in the town square later in the evening, and that marked the conclusion of the festival.
It's possible to pre-purchase a ticket that, at reasonable cost, gives a good seat in a large stand in the main square to view the procession. Included in the price also are a WW1 museum visit, and a simple but tasty three-course lunch on the Sunday in one of the town cafés. I booked via the Internet and the ticket was waiting for me to collect it at the town Tourist Office on the Saturday. There are not many hotels in Ypres, which is quite a small town, and I did not decide to go until just a couple of months beforehand. However, I found the Belgian Tourist Office very helpful and they were able to find me a room for the weekend in Poperinge, a little town 15 km away and with its own WW1 history. It was a 10-minute train ride to Ypres, with trains every hour.
In 2003 I chose to travel to Belgium by Eurostar to Lille in France, from where trains run to Ypres and Poperinge (the end of the line), although a change had to be made in Kortrijk (Courtrai). Anyone planning to go to the next event in 2024 would be well advised to make arrangements some months ahead, as it becomes heavily booked.
NB: the New York Times has a useful further description of the Festival from 1989, although obviously the prices and some of the information about Ypres will be well out of date now.
Please note that the 2006 images are the copyright of the respective photographers. In alphabetical order: Richard Brooke, Helen Casey, Deborah Erbs, Peggy Way and Irene Whitwell. Visit the gallery of Kattenstoet 2006 images.
You may also be interested in another cat festival at Catskill, New York State, USA
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Our featured feline at the head of the page: it was with great regret that I decided to let Pushkin be 'put to sleep' early in 2006, following intractable health problems, a gloomy prognosis and a much diminished quality of life. He was a 'rescue cat' of uncertain age, but I would guess 12 years or more. He will be remembered with great affection as a cat with perfect manners: a gentle soul who seemed even more inscrutable than the average feline. There's a small tribute to him here.
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